Colleen CrossFeatures Profiles
High-energy, friendly Pizzeria Gusto in Winnipeg is bringing in customers with a one-of-a-kind dining experience
You couldn’t blame Bobby Mottola for being a little distracted while talking with Canadian Pizza. The busy entrepreneur not only was in the midst of getting a six-week-old second restaurant off the ground but also was waiting for an important phone call from his wife, who was expecting their second child the day of our interview.
“My leg is tapping, waiting . . . but it’s good,” he says with a laugh, before graciously giving us his full attention to share the success story of Pizzeria Gusto.
At least he didn’t mind staying close to the phone.
Bobby Mottola and his father, Don, together run Gusto, a bustling 110-seat restaurant on Academy Road in Winnipeg that is known for its friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
The father-and-son pair started the business as a pizza-only restaurant in 2008 and steadily added other Italian dishes, asking for feedback as they went.
The menu reads like an Italian film festival, with such pizza names as The Don, Sophia and Sinatra. Some pies throw local ingredients into the mix: on the Pancetta e Salame, for example, Manitoba bacon shares billing with chillies, Calabrese salami and Fontina cheese.
One of their specialties, the Romesco, serves an even higher purpose than satisfying loyal customers. The pie features spicy red pepper sauce, caramelized onions, cacciatore sausage, pecorino, arugula and pine nuts, and the Mottolas donate a portion of the Romesco’s sales receipts to the Cool 2Be Kind Campaign, which aims to empower kids in the face of bullying.
This sense of caring seems in keeping with Bobby’s desire to create a unique, exciting, yet familiar, experience for customers. Having grown up with an emotional attachment to food, he loves to share it with others.
“In our house, you came home at 5:30 and had dinner with the family, and if you had three friends with you, they came, and if you had a girlfriend with you, she came,” he says. “Oftentimes it was loud but it was always a place where conversation and emotions were cultivated, and it bound you together. The memories of those nights are irreplaceable.”
His grandmother’s pizza and his mom’s pasta held a special place in his life, when he moved away to Vancouver and travelled beyond, he turned to those dishes for a sense of familiarity. “It’s a comfort thing, and as I got older, I realized how dynamic and unique each of those items could be,” he says.
After travelling the world with his brother at age 19, owner and president Bobby had a stint running a small bar and lounge in Winnipeg, eventually setting out on what he calls a “food-first” venture.
Don’s talents are complementary. With more than 30 years in sales and marketing roles in the garment and insurance industries, Don serves as chief financial officer, and is known affectionately as “the kite string” that keeps his son reeled in. Bobby spends more time than he’d like to on payroll and business matters, but his father’s expertise frees up his time for other activities such as talking with customers.
Happily, bringing in new customers is not a hurdle at the moment. “I don’t need to worry about bringing them in,” he says. It’s more about introducing them to new dishes and having them appreciate the experience.
“It’s rewarding,” he says. The desire to combine an exciting food experience with the familiar was born of his earlier world tour Bobby took with his brother.
“We got on a plane, flew out east, then worked our way back,” he says. “It was a magical experience and I have an emotional attachment to all of those memories, remembering the places visited and what you saw. You invariably try to find familiarity, and oftentimes that familiarity comes with a meal. I love those experiences and wanted to try to replicate them a little.”
He views the mark of the restaurant’s success as the retention of customers and how many regulars they can build. “That’s a really good indicator of a place that’s doing well. We have a lot of recurring customers. Our guests become friends – they become family. We have opportunities to talk outside the building. And that’s just like my parents’ house.”
Bobby is quick to credit staff with providing a positive customer experience that keeps customers coming back. Gusto has 25 employees, many of whom have been with the restaurant from the get-go and some of whom have moved up from server to manager, for example, Suzy Afifi, his operations manager for both restaurants.
We asked him the secret to hiring and retaining great staff.
“It just comes down to being honest with what we’re doing, he says. My serving staff is as good as any in the world. They are genuinely happy when people walk into the building and sit down because they have this opportunity to be a part of someone’s night and they take ownership of that. They make sure that everybody is looking outside of the regular menu items and try to create an evening. That’s a big part of it.
“It’s not an industry where people necessarily want to be forever, but as long as they are passionate about this while they are here and they represent themselves in an honest way, that’s important,” he says. “All the little intricacies of serving can be taught, but it’s that intangible, positive, hard-working person we look for.
When a new staff member comes on, the more experienced staff quickly get them up to speed, he says. “They set the bar themselves.”
“Every time you hire, you take a risk, he says. “You have to learn to find the best people and to trust them.”
Another element of the restaurant’s atmosphere is the layout, which includes seating for 60 guests inside and 50 on the patio. The space incorporates long communal tables to encourage socializing.
The energy is high, with people table-hopping. He likes that. “People want ambience, music and to be part of something bigger,” he says. “I think of the whole restaurant as one big table.”
Staff take delight in filling those seats for special events that they turn into intimate occasions through magical touches such as chandeliers, a dance floor and lots and lots of white tulle.
“It’s a lucrative part of the business, he says of the birthday parties, weddings, business meetings – even a boxing match! – Gusto has hosted. They try to recreate the look, feel and mood of the restaurant while making the event memorable.
It’s important to do your initial research and price yourself within an established range, he adds. There are always more hours involved than anticipated but the process gets smoother each time: “The more you do, the more confident you get.”
There seems no better indication that business is good than the opening of a second restaurant, but Bobby’s second venture – The Merchant Kitchen – is not another branch of Pizzeria Gusto, but a completely different restaurant adjacent to Winnipeg’s Alt Hotel and featuring Asian fusion cuisine, a favourite of Bobby’s.
“I didn’t want to jeopardize Gusto,” he says, adding that they’ve kept almost all staff at the first restaurant to help maintain the positive, familiar experience for loyal customers.
The busy owner has some deceptively simply advice for those in the pizza business enduring the ups and downs of running a business.
“Focus on your own business, be open to change and listen to your guest,” he says.
With the restaurant’s tables always full, it seems the guests have spoken, and they’re saying they like what Pizzeria Gusto is serving.
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